When the earthquake struck Haiti before 4.53 pm (local time) on January 12, people on the ground reported widespread panic. Many in the aid industry said it was like nothing they had seen before.

But what are the major issues affecting aid being received in Haiti? Why does it seem to take so long for aid to reach those most in need? What is the best way to help?

A lack of clear information about the situation of children and their families continues to represent a major cause for concern.

Plan started providing emergency relief items immediately following the earthquake. This relief effort is being co-ordinated from  the Dominican Republic and in the parking lot of the Plan office in Port-Au-Prince.

Communication is a major problem. At a time such as this, accurate data and information is needed so that decisions are made from a position of knowledge. Unfortunately that is incredibly difficult. Lots of aid organisations all turn up at the same time and it’s hard to co-ordinate who is doing what. Also, when aid agencies are dedicating time on search and rescue, it can be hard to have the resources for data collection.

The other issues Haiti — and the aid agencies attempting to help out in the immediate aftermath — would be dealing with through this crisis include logistics; the scale of the disaster; people migrating out of the area; and security and safety of people affected by the disaster, as well as the aid workers there to assist them.

At this time, it is most important to distribute items such as water, food, personal hygiene items, utensils, matches/candles/flash lights, plastic sheeting and towels. More supplies for Plan’s relief effort — including family tents — are being delivered by road and boat into the earthquake-affected areas.

But one of the main problems during a disaster such as this is well-meaning people sending goods (rather than donating money). Items that seem very generous can often have no value in a situation such as  this. And in fact gifts in kind can take up unnecessary storage space and require dedicated resources to manage.

This has been a massive problem in past emergency humanitarian situations. After the Pakistani earthquake, one of the organisations received a donation of 50 summer dome tents — each fitting one person. Not particularly helpful for large families, and in the middle of winter. In the Solomon Islands someone once donated a snow sled. Just that snow sled cost money to post and then time to manage once it got there, imagine what could have been done if that amount of money was donated.

Gifts such as these can do more harm than good. If people want to help, the best thing they can do is donate money. This way the professionals on the ground can deliver exactly what the people need.

Already, Australians have been very generous. They have donated more than $100,000 to Plan in Australia, but much more is needed.

To donate online to Plan’s Haiti Earthquake Appeal, visit www.plan.org.au or phone 13 7526

Peter Fray

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